Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, November 17, 2006

"Professors try fencing out free speech at WSU"

An editorial from Jim Fisher of the Lewiston Tribune concerning Mssrs. Leonard and Streamas:
Isn't it supposed to be the professors on a university campus who provoke free and open debate? During a recent incident at Washington State University, it was students who were doing that. And it was two faculty members who displayed shameful disregard for their freedom to do so.

On Nov. 2, the students, members of WSU College Republicans, erected a 24-foot chain-link fence in the heart of campus as a show of support for congressional action to build more fencing at the United States' border with Mexico. Whatever you think of a bigger border fence -- and this page doesn't think much of it -- the demonstration was hardly out of line on a campus that has seen far more raucous displays of free speech.

That apparently did not matter to two professors in the school's comparative ethnic studies department. One, David Leonard, demanded the student identification number of a demonstrator who was videotaping the event. And another, John Streamas, hurled a vulgar insult at at least one of the demonstrators.

Leonard apparently later thought better of his attempt to intimidate the students, the Spokesman-Review reported Thursday. He sent a letter of apology to the student newspaper. But Streamas remained defiant, telling the Spokane newspaper in an e-mail message the fence was comparable to the most hateful of symbols.

"It was a violently racist symbol," Streamas said, "no different from Nazis carrying a swastika through a Jewish neighborhood or the KKK rallying around a Confederate flag in a black neighborhood."

Ignore the analogies, no matter how spurious. It is disturbing that Streamas apparently thinks this country's protection of free speech does not extend to offensive speech. It does, as the American Civil Liberties Union proved in successfully challenging -- up through the U.S. Supreme Court -- the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill., a town with a Jewish majority.

If anything, a university campus should be even more open to provocative demonstrations than the streets of Skokie. As long as demonstrators are disrupting no university function, and coercing no one, they should remain free to speak, march or engage in the kind of street theater the fencing represented.

They should also expect to hear from those on the other side, of course. But they should not expect, or have to endure, intimidation from those with the authority of a faculty position. Professors who abuse that authority should be shown the light, or shown the door.

No comments: